There’s a lot to do before I can leave for Los Angeles and one of my projects was to get my photographs into albums and put into storage. I was doing this late the other night, my emotions racing through the years as I flipped from one memory to the next, until I came across this picture of my old friend Ray. It was a golden yellow print off some old Kodak negative, of a friend that I hadn’t seen in twenty years, but there was something that made me stop.
Ray and I got to know each other when we both worked for a director named Bob Giraldi back in the eighties. Ray worked production and he was always outside while I was editing in my dark little room inside on the second floor. I was a little big shot back then, editing music videos for a hot director, but I was nervous too. In the picture we are in my apartment, and I must have had the camera on a timer because my whole body is in motion and I'm a blur. Ray is in focus, his thick black hair bathed in the golden light as he stares at me with a little smirk. It was as if he knew something I didn’t and saw something I couldn’t and it made me want to talk to him again.
Ray was glad to hear from me and I was glad to know it wasn’t something I said or did that make him stop speaking to me for twenty years. He was out of the movie business and working for a homeless shelter in a town near Albany and that seemed like a good place to spend Thanksgiving so I said I would drive up from Manhattan. Ray brought up the health code when I mentioned I would be bringing my two little Yorkies, but I told him they were small and I could put them in their little bag, and he reluctantly agreed.
There’s a lot that happens to men between forty and sixty, they get softer and grayer, they either grow in stature or get squashed down, and Ray seemed to have all these things going on at the same time. Now his thick dark hair was a circle of gray around a bald spot on top, he had a belly and cheeks filled out like a round ruddy Buddha. Our ages melted away as we hugged and laughed and I bustled out of the car with my two little dogs and all our stuff.
Ray’s tiny apartment was charming and neat, full of small artistic touches that hinted at the dreams we both once had. It was one open room where we could talk across the kitchen counter as I sat on the couch brushing Rocky and Duke and preparing them for their visit to the shelter. Ray was always a warm host that loved to entertain, but now I noticed a heaviness about him as he worked in the kitchen. When I came from the bathroom I saw the alcove in the back where he slept and I was sad to see only a lonely single bed.
With Rocky and Duke sitting and watching from their bag I heard about the two long term girlfriends each with their own children. With the second girlfriend came a house, but with the break-up that had to be sold and now there were only lawyers to argue over money. Ray took all the blame for his failed relationships, but to me it seemed his only mistakes were in giving too much and learning too late. Except for the accident of my son’s birth it was my story too, but by then lunch was over and my part of the saga would have to wait.
After lunch Ray took me to a plain brick building, squat and square with rooms on the ground floor for homeless people with handicaps, both physical and mental. There was the smell of turkey roasting mixed with a pervasive haze of cigarette smoke and a group of people gathered around a football game playing on a television in the lounge. There was one little boy with eyes slightly crossed that shrieked with happiness at meeting my dogs. Duke growled and ducked his head back into the bag as the little boy grabbed at his ears, but Rocky held his head up gamely and basked in the attention. He kissed the lips of the little boy’s mother as Ray groaned.
Ray’s newly painted office was in another building nearby. The storefront office came with the 1.7 million dollar grant that Ray secured from the Obama administration to administer homelessness funds for the entire county and his promotion to coordinator of the homelessness prevention program. The Spartan suite of rooms was a long way from shaking hands with rock stars and flying first class, and I couldn’t help suggesting a few action figures for his desk, but I was still pretty impressed.
After that we drove through the town of Troy, past distressed buildings and pot-holed streets, to the next shelter Ray wanted to show me. This place felt more like a Holiday Inn than a homeless shelter, but the Lansing Inn had been exactly that a few years before when Troy was not yet in decline. Even outside the smell of cigarette smoke was overpowering, drowning out the smell of turkey just as it had before and sticking to my clothes and hair. Ray started to appreciate the magic my dogs seemed to bring as we sat in the little courtyard out back and they frolicked among all their new friends. Finally, I saw him relax and start to smile.
I was worried about being drowsy on the long ride home so Ray and I stopped at a Stewarts on the way back to his apartment for a tall cup of coffee and the sweets I was craving after all that cigarette smoke. Ray’s mouth gaped open as I told him my half of the saga, how I had retreated to my apartment in New York after a bitter custody fight with my first ex husband, not knowing how to take care of my son and myself, needing to grow up. Now, broke and hopeful, I was a few days from starting my long drive back across the country to be with my son and Ray was encouraging. In his kind face there was compassion and understanding.
When I got home I sent Ray an old MacBook gathering dust in my apartment to replace the ancient computer he was using. Ray was effusive about the gift, but I couldn't help thinking that what he gave was so much more important. After our first email I convinced him to get on Facebook and on his old computer that day he showed me the hundreds of friends he had acquired in only two days. Ray was modest about having so many friends, saying only that he was very blessed and not taking any credit, but I knew why so many people loved him. It was the way he listened and nodded with words of encouragement when I told him my story, the way he found something to admire in my courage and the look of respect and love that I saw in his face. It was the same look from that photograph taken all those years before. It was reason I had come to spend my Thanksgiving with him.